Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

The Victim of a Traitor

On the Ohio River, fourteen miles below Marietta, lies a beautiful island, which became, in the early part of this century, the scene of a singular romance. At that time it was a wild and forest-clad domain, except for a few acres of clearing near its upper extremity, on which stood a large and handsome mansion, with spacious out-buildings and surrounding grounds which were laid out with the finest taste. The great elms and gigantic sycamore of the West gave grandeur to the surrounding woodland, and afforded shelter to grazing flocks and herds. Huge water-willows dipped their drooping branches into the waves of the Ohio as they ran swiftly by. In front of the mansion were several acres of well-kept lawn. In its rear were two acres of flower-garden, planted with native and exotic shrubs. Vine-covered arbors and grottos rose here and there. On one side of the house was the kitchen garden, stocked with choice fruit-trees. Through the forest-trees an opening had been cut, which afforded an attractive view of the river for several miles of its course. On the whole, it was a paradise in the wilderness, a remarkable scene for that outlying region, for not far from the mansion still stood a large block-house, which had, not many years before, been used as a place of refuge in the desolating Indian wars.

Here dwelt Harman Blennerhasset and his lovely wife; he a man of scientific attainments, she a woman of fine education and charming manners. He was of Irish origin, wealthy, amply educated, with friends among the highest nobility. But he had imbibed republican principles, and failed to find himself comfortable in royalist society. He had therefore sought America, heard of the beautiful islands of the Ohio, and built himself a home on one of the most charming of them all.

We have described the exterior of the mansion. Interiorly it was richly ornamented and splendidly furnished. The drawing-room was of noble proportions and admirable adornment. The library was well filled with choice books. The proprietor was fond of chemistry, and had an excellent laboratory; he enjoyed astronomy, and possessed a powerful telescope; he had a passion for music, had composed many airs, and played well on several instruments. He was, in his way, a universal genius, courteous in manners, benevolent in disposition, yet of that genial and unsuspicious nature which laid him open to the wiles of those shrewd enough to make use of his weak points.

Mrs. Blennerhasset loved society, and was none too well pleased that her husband should bury himself and her in the wilderness, and waste his fine powers on undeveloped nature. Such guests of culture as could be obtained were hospitably welcomed at their island mansion. Few boats passed up and down the river without stopping at the island, and cultured and noble persons from England and France not infrequently found their way to the far-off home of the Blennerhassets.

Yet, withal, the intervals between the visits of cultivated guests were long. Ohio was rapidly filling up with population, but culture was a rare exotic in that pioneer region, and the inmates of the Blennerhasset mansion must have greatly lacked visits from their own social equals.

One day in the spring of 1805 a traveller landed on the island, as if merely lured thither by the beauty of the grounds as seen from the river. Mr. Blennerhasset was in his study, whither a servant came to tell him that a gentlemanly stranger had landed, and was observing the lawn. The servant was at once bidden to invite the stranger, in his master's name, to enter the house. The traveller courteously declined. He could not think of intruding, begged to be excused for landing on the grounds, and sent in his card. Mr. Blennerhasset read the card, and his eyes lighted up with interest, for what he saw was the name of a former Vice-President of the United States. He at once hastened to the lawn, and with polite insistence declared that Mr. Burr must enter and partake of the hospitality of his house.

It was like inviting Satan into Eden. Aaron Burr, for it was he, readily complied. He had made the journey thither for that sole purpose. The story of Mr. Blennerhasset's wealth had reached the East, and the astute schemer hoped to enlist his aid in certain questionable projects he then entertained.

But no hint of an ulterior purpose was suffered to appear. Burr was noted for the fascination of his manners, and his host and hostess were charmed with him. He was unusually well informed, eloquent in speech, familiar with all social arts, and could mask the deepest designs with the most artless affectation of simplicity. All the secrets of American political movements were familiar to him, and he conversed fluently of the prospects of war with Spain, the ease with which the Mexicans might throw off their foreign yoke, and the possibilities of splendid pecuniary results from land speculations within the Spanish territory on the Red River.

This seed sown, the arch deceiver went his way. His first step had been taken. Blennerhasset was patriotically devoted to the United States, but the grand scheme which had been portrayed to him seemed to have nothing to do with questions of state. It was a land speculation open to private wealth.

Burr kept his interest alive by letters. The Blennerhassets spent the next winter in New York and Philadelphia, and there met Aaron Burr again. Not unlikely they came with that purpose, for the hopes of new wealth, easily to be made, were alluring and exciting. During that winter it is probable that a sort of land-speculation partnership was formed. Very rich lands lay on the Washita River, within Spanish territory, said Burr, which could be bought for a small sum. Then, by encouraging immigration thither, they might be sold at enormous profit.

This was the Burr scheme as Blennerhasset heard it. The dupe did not dream of the treasonable projects resting within the mind of his dangerous associate. These were, to provoke revolt of the people of Mexico and the northern Spanish provinces, annex the western United States region, and establish a great empire, in which Burr should be the leading potentate.

Mr. Blennerhasset, once enlisted in the land-speculation project, supplied the funds to buy the lands on the Washita, and engaged in operations on a large scale for sending settlers to the purchased domain. Colonel Burr came to Marietta and took an active part in these operations. Fifteen large flat-boats were built to convey the immigrants, their furniture, and such arms as they might need for repelling Indians. Five hundred men were fixed as the number for the first colony, and this number Burr succeeded in enlisting. Each was to have one hundred acres of land. This was not in itself any great inducement where land was so plentiful as in Ohio. But Burr did not hesitate to hint at future possibilities. The lands to be colonized had been peacefully purchased. But the Mexicans were eager to throw off the Spanish yoke; war between the United States and Spain might break out at any minute; Mexico would be invaded by an army, set free, and the new pioneers would have splendid opportunities in the formation of a new and great republic of the West and South. Burr went further than this. He had articles inserted in a Marietta newspaper, signed by an assumed name, in which was advocated the secession of the States west of the Alleghanies. These articles were strongly replied to by a writer who signed himself "Regulus," and with whose views the community at large sympathized. His articles were copied by Eastern papers. They spoke of the armed expedition which Colonel Burr was preparing, and declared that its purpose was the invasion of Mexico. Jefferson, then in the Presidential chair, knew Burr too well to ignore these warnings. He sent a secret agent to Marietta to discover what was going on, and at the same time asked the governor of Ohio to seize the boats and suppress the expedition.

Mr. Blennerhasset assured the secret agent, Mr. Graham, that no thought was entertained of invading Mexico. The project, he said, was an eminently peaceful one. But the public was of a different opinion. Rumor, once started, grew with its usual rapidity. Burr was organizing an army to seize New Orleans, rob the banks, capture the artillery, and set up an empire or republic of his own in the valley of the lower Mississippi. Blennerhasset was his accomplice, and as deep in the scheme as himself. The Ohio Legislature, roused to energetic action by the rumors which were everywhere afloat, passed an act that all armed expeditions should be suppressed, and empowered the governor to call out the militia, seize Burr's boats, and hold the crews for trial.

Public attention had been earnestly and hostilely directed to the questionable project, and Burr's hopes were at an end. The militia were mustered at Marietta, a six-pounder was planted on the river-bank, orders were given to stop and examine all descending boats, and sentries were placed to watch the stream by day and night.

While these events were proceeding, Mr. Blennerhasset had gone to the Muskingum, to superintend the departure of the boats that were to start from that stream. While there the boats were seized by order of the governor. The suspicions of the people and government were for the first time made clear to him. Greatly disturbed, and disposed to abandon the whole project, costly as it had been to him, he hastened back to his island home. There he found a flotilla of four boats, with a crew of about thirty men, which had passed Marietta before the mustering of the militia. They were commanded by a Mr. Tyler.

Mr. Blennerhasset's judgment was in favor of abandoning the scheme. Mrs. Blennerhasset, who was very ambitious, argued strongly on the other side. She was eager to see her husband assume a position fitting to his great talents. Mr. Tyler joined her in her arguments. Blennerhasset gave way. It was a fatal compliance, one destined to destroy his happiness and peace for the remainder of his life, and to expose his wife to the most frightful scenes of outrage and barbarity.

The frontier contained hosts of lawless men, men to whom loyalty meant license. Three days after the conversation described, word was brought to the island that a party of the Wood County militia, made up of the lowest and most brutal men in the community, would land on the island that very night, seize the boats, arrest all the men they found, and probably burn the house.

The danger was imminent. Blennerhasset and all the men with him took to the boats to escape arrest and possibly murder from these exasperated frontiersmen. Mrs. Blennerhasset and her children were left in the mansion, with the expectation that their presence would restrain the brutality of the militia, and preserve the house and its valuable contents from destruction. It proved a fallacious hope. Colonel Phelps, the commander of the militia, pursued Blennerhasset. In his absence his men behaved like savages. They took possession of the house, became brutally drunk from the liquors they found in the cellar, rioted through its elegantly furnished rooms, burned its fences for bonfires, and for seven days made life a pandemonium of horrors for the helpless woman and frightened children who had been left in their midst.

The experience of those seven days was frightful. There was no escape. Mrs. Blennerhasset was compelled to witness the ruthless destruction of all she held most dear, and to listen to the brutal ribaldry and insults of the rioting savages. Not until the end of the time named did relief come. Then Mr. Putnam, a friend from the neighboring town of Belpré, ventured on the island. He provided a boat in which the unhappy lady was enabled to save a few articles of furniture and some choice books. In this boat, with her two sons, six and eight years old, and with two young men from Belpré, she started down the river to join her husband. Two or three negro servants accompanied her.

It was a journey of great hardships. The weather was cold, the river filled with floating ice, the boat devoid of any comforts. A rude cabin, open in the front, afforded the only shelter from wind and rain. Half frozen in her flight, the poor woman made her way down the stream, and at length joined her husband at the mouth of the Cumberland River, which he had reached with his companions, having distanced pursuit. Their flight was continued down the Mississippi as far as Natchez.

No sooner had Mrs. Blennerhasset left the island than the slight restraint which her presence had exercised upon the militia disappeared. The mansion was ransacked. Whatever they did not care to carry away was destroyed. Books, pictures, rich furniture were used to feed bonfires. Doors were torn from their hinges, windows dashed in, costly mirrors broken with hammers. Destruction swept the island, all its improvements being ruthlessly destroyed. For months the mansion stood, an eyesore of desolation, until some hand, moved by the last impulse of savagery, set it on fire, and it was burned to the ground.

What followed may be briefly told. So great was the indignation against Burr that he was forced to abandon his project. His adherents were left in destitution. Some of them were a thousand miles and more from their homes, and were forced to make their way back as they best could. Burr and Blennerhasset were both arrested for treason. The latter escaped. There was no criminating evidence against him. As for Burr, he had been far too shrewd to leave himself open to the hand of the law. His trial resulted in an acquittal. Though no doubt was felt of his guilt, no evidence could be found to establish it. He was perforce set free.

If he had done nothing more, he had, by his detestable arts, broken up one of the happiest homes in America, and ruined his guileless victim.

Blennerhasset bought a cotton plantation at Natchez. His wife, who had the energy he lacked, managed it. They dwelt there for ten years, favorites with the neighboring planters. Then came war with England, and the plantation ceased to afford them a living. The ruined man returned to his native land, utterly worn out and discouraged, and died there in poverty in 1831.

Mrs. Blennerhasset became a charge on the charity of her friends. After several years she returned to the United States, where she sought to obtain remuneration from Congress for her destroyed property. She would probably have succeeded but for her sudden death. She was buried at the expense of a society of Irish ladies in the city of New York. And thus ended the career of two of the victims of Aaron Burr. They had listened to the siren voice of the tempter, and ruin and despair were their rewards.

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